On a hill, he sat.

Alex didn’t match the location. Casually ragged jeans and a worn orange shirt stood out in this fantasy-field setting, at odds with distant four-winged birds and the glimmer of unicorn horns. Sunset light haunted the whole of the air, kissing everything pink, softening edges and drawing the gaze up toward the sky, which stretched in a perfect gradient from violet to dark blue.

He was prettier than the sunset. Prettier than the grass, the unicorns, the fairies, all of it. And to his great delight, none of them cared.

It was nice to be here in a place where nobody cared. Where there were no dangers bigger than hawks swooping after rabbits, where the weight of the world most assuredly did not rest on him, for once, and he could just be.

Not fend people off. Not fight to hold it in. Just be.

He didn’t glow, exactly, but he was visible as the light faded – visible in spite of dying light, visible in spite of physics and logic and anything else – but there was no one to see him, and he didn’t have to hold it in. Like relaxing a muscle that never untensed, he exhaled, releasing control, but the power that slipped through his pores was not destructive.

The breeze changed. Rabbits hopped nearer. Unicorns – three of them – ambled from the woods to watch him, entranced. Something nudged his hip, and he looked down to find a small, cat-like mammal he couldn’t identify. It rubbed against him, trilling sweetly.

“Hi, little guy,” Alex said, and picked it up.

Careful, came a voice in his mind, a voice that did not belong to him, a voice soft and solemn and very wise. Sometimes they mark territory.

“Not this one,” said Alex, choosing to reply out loud because it was one of the few things in their relationship he could control. The owner of the voice stayed silent while Alex petted the thing, fascinated by its two ringed tails. “I thought you were going to give me time,” he said.

I am.

“Then why the bloody hell are you talking to me?” Alex growled. The creature in his hands peered up at him, adoring. “Naw, it’s not your fault. You’re okay,” he reassured it.

I cannot leave you, said the voice. You know this.

Alex sighed. “I don’t suppose you check out, sometimes? At least leave me alone in my sleep, or in the shower?”

Shocking as it may seem, I do have other things to do.

“And he just had to bother me on my day off, didn’t he? Didn’t he? Gods, you’re cute,” said Alex.

It’s going to mark you.

“Fine. If the marking stinks, it’ll be a great deterrent on the way home,” said Alex, dropping the creature onto the grass as he stood.

You are already finished?

Somebody harshed my vibe,” Alex said, lingering on his rolled ‘R.’

I have waited as promised. I continue to wait. I will not cheat in this, Alexander. As always, I only hope I am wrong.

Alex shuddered. “You are,” he whispered, almost to himself. “You are wrong. And I’m not stopping until everyone is saved.”

The silence said more than the voice ever could have.

Alex rubbed his face. Life was worth it, he told himself. Lives. People. Just because the owner of the voice thought all life should end as the more merciful option….

The cat-like creature rubbed against his leg, trilling. Then it sprayed him, a perfectly controlled arc that somehow missed his jeans entirely and landed on his shirt.

Alex laughed. “Good shot, little guy.” He petted its head once more, then pulled his shirt off, exposing thin white scars along his shoulder blades. He arched back and cried out, and four wings spilled out of him like white light, enormous, stretching out and out and out like dreams and wishes and whispers, and in that moment, he did glow, golden light shining from every inch of his body regardless of clothes, and in that one moment, he barely looked human.

The world held its breath.

Then he shuddered, exhaled, and his face lost its too-hard edges, resuming the usual insouciant smile and playful eyes. He leaped, but did not come down again, flying toward the portal home as smooth as a raft down a stream. Behind him, the many creatures who had been held went back to business, shaking themselves as if waking from a dream.